A six-figure salary.
The Holy Grail of most working professionals’ annual earning aspirations. The pinnacle of achievement. A sum that we equate with wealth, success, and even happiness. Something most Americans desire but only 9% of us will ever achieve. An amount a person may spend her entire career working toward… Except for me.
With my $10k signing bonus, my $70k annual salary, and my $55k end-of-year bonus, I earned a total of $135,000 my first year out of college.
I was 23-years-old.
A PSA on the value of money
Now, before you start swearing at me under your breath or rolling your eyes and assuming this is just another “money doesn’t buy happiness” piece, just breathe. The truth about money, as with most things in life, is that its value is relative. If you’re making $30k per year and living comfortably, then a higher salary is a nice-to-have. If you’re making $30k per year and living below the poverty line, then a higher salary is a necessity.
The greatest truth of all? There is almost no way to convince a person who has never made six-figures that more money is not the sustainable route to liking your job, feeling less stressed, or enjoying your life. This is especially true if you don’t already like your job, feel good, and enjoy life currently. That’s why I’m not even going to try.
I’m also not going to sit here and tell you that money is evil and loving your job will make up for financial instability. In fact, it is my humble opinion that having money is better than being broke. The problem with money is not that we think we need it when we don’t. The problem is that we heavily and misguided outweigh the impact that more money will have on our overall happiness and wellbeing.
The startling reality is that other factors that are inherently less flashy than dollar signs are the true indicators and predictors of long-term, sustainable success and stability. Does a raise feel good? Yes! But is a raise going to feel as good as you believe? And will this feeling last as long as you expect? Unfortunately, no.
But while I had to learn these lessons firsthand, it’s my hope that by sharing my experiences you can dodge these bullets altogether. Remember, money is not the enemy. It’s just not exactly what it’s cracked up to be.
My early career journey
In the fall of 2012, I was a shell of myself. Two and a half years in sales on a Wall Street trading floor had taken its toll. Stressful days gave way to wine-soaked happy hours. Anxiety-ridden evenings at the beck and call of a Blackberry (remember those?) led to insomnia or my personal favorite secret weapon, self-medicating with NyQuil.
I had many frustrations at this early point in my career, but two of them stood well above the others:
- I had ZERO idea what I really wanted to do with my career and,
- I felt completely and irrevocably STUCK in my soul-sucking job.
Thus, my unhealthy and ineffective cycle continued. If I carved out even an hour to think about my ideal career, I always ended that time more anxious and confused than when I started. After all, you can’t simply force clarity on yourself. Attempting to do so is the mental equivalent of a cardiothoracic surgeon performing her own open-heart procedure—messy, lacking in perspective, and ultimately, disastrous.
My professional epiphany
One of my favorite concepts in psychology is cognitive dissonance. It’s the idea that our thoughts and beliefs cannot exist in opposition to our behaviors and actions without causing distress. In layman’s terms: we’re not good at being divided. You can’t stay in a job you tolerate (much less hate!) for very long without either losing your mind or accepting your reality as an inescapable truth.
One day I was walking on the 8th floor balcony with one of my colleagues. I noticed that several men were working repairing the bridge next to the building. Before I could even finish drawing his attention in that direction, he started gushing to me about how he had studied engineering in college and loved construction. Once he had wrapped up his bridge soliloquy, he confided in me that the only reason he was working in finance is because that’s “what successful people do” and he thought it was the best way to make money.
I don’t think many of us realize that these are the real stakes of our career decisions. We put off finding purpose and fulfilling our potential for the next promotion or raise in salary. I mean, what’s five more years, right? Or three? Or two?
This is where cognitive dissonance becomes key. Change your behavior or change your belief. One has to give. Stay in the wrong place long enough, and you begin to accept your situation as fate. You may even forget about that purpose or passion that once fueled your beliefs.
My favorite lessons for career clarity seekers
The irony of pursuing success is that you have to experience unsustainable success to really know what’s going to make you happy long term. As someone who experienced one of our well-accepted societal definitions of career “success” — I can tell you, unequivocally, this one truth about your career:
No amount of success on paper will ever make an unsustainable career a better fit for you.
If you’re not already on the path of pursuing purposeful and meaningful work, you’re on the path to burnout, self-medication, anxiety, and stress. No change in salary, status, or any other shiny object is going to alleviate the fundamental fact that you were made for something else—something better for you, something more impactful, and ultimately, something more sustainable.
I didn’t experience a true career fit and the satisfaction (and salary!) that comes with it until I was 29 years old. While that felt really late to me, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. Every day in my career clarity program we see clients who are 30… 40… 50… even 60… who have never experienced work they love. But what they lack in clarity is something we can fix.
Something that’s harder to fix is disbelief.
So, what will you choose to believe? That you have to accept your fate and work in misery? Or that you can fight for and achieve clarity? That you can actually have work you love that pays what you’re worth or that the only route to “success” is one that will require you to make significant concessions in happiness and wellbeing?
I’ve lived on both branches of this decision tree. I know in my heart we all have a purpose in this world and I believe we can fulfill that purpose professionally. If you need to borrow my confidence, do it! That nagging feeling you’re made for more is there for a reason.
Ultimately, I quit my job on Wall Street armed only with the belief that I could find my true career clarity. What will you choose to believe?